‘Step Up’ revenues are only the first step needed to fix Oklahoma’s budget problems (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

The House and the Senate appropriations committees have continued their budget hearings looking at agency requests for next year’s state budget. In addition to the recent request by DOC director Joe Allbaugh for an additional $1 billion, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has weighed in with a request for an additional $474 million. The needs of both agencies are well documented.

Just these two agency requests add up to nearly $1.5 billion, leaving nothing for human services, mental health, higher education and a multitude of other state services. The Step Up Oklahoma proposal for $749.7 million in revenue is a good start, but it’s just a start. For example, the Step Up plan calls for $285 million for a $5,000 teacher pay raise. The remaining $367.7 million revenue is to be spread out among all the agencies for “essential services and budget stabilization” and $100 million to fill this year’s budget gap.

By comparison, Superintendent Hofmeister’s education request, in addition to the teacher pay raise, calls for an additional $185 million for the first year of an eight-year plan to improve Oklahoma schools. She wants to raise Oklahoma’s educational ranking among other states to the top 20, reduce the need for remediation classes in college, develop “career plans” for all students, increase early childhood programs, put more certified teachers in the classroom, and increase graduation rates.

I’ve asked quite a few legislators what they think the possibility of passing the Step Up revenue measures is, and literally none will venture a guess. For a long time, the organized business community remained on the sidelines when it comes to tax increases, except to protect their own individual interests. They’ve now “stepped up,” but that doesn’t mean legislators won’t hear complaints if they vote for the plan. Since passage of SQ 640, generations of legislators have avoided this kind of heat. Last session, the consequences became unavoidable, and nearly enough members “stepped up.”

This year is an election year, so one more group needs to step up, and that is the candidates for governor. I was disappointed to read that some of the so-called leaders of Step Up are supporting gubernatorial candidates who are opposing the revenue plan. This certainly makes their “step up” support seem superficial. Instead of holding their candidates accountable, they are supporting them even as the candidates go around the state whipping up opposition to revenue increases by touting the nonsense that we have a “spending problem, not a revenue problem.” These actions signal legislators to vote “no” on the proposal. These candidates know better or they are willfully ignorant. If the Legislature is unable to raise revenue, it will lie at the feet of these gubernatorial candidates and their hypocritical “step up” supporters. It would serve one of them right if he got elected and had to deal with the result.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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